My 5 year-old niece spent some time in a Raleigh, North Carolina hospital recently after an encounter with a copperhead snake in her front yard. Even though the ER doctors say her finger was merely grazed by the snake, whose fangs didn't excrete much venom, she was in excruciating pain, her finger looked like a swollen purple grape, and it kept oozing all manner of unpleasantness. My adorable toe-headed niece with Shirley Temple curls and more energy than both of her siblings, combined, was rendered immobile after the event. She is not alone in her experience. It's that time of year again.
Between 7,000 and 8,000 venomous bites occur per year in the U.S., alone. Instances of snake bites increase exponentially in the spring and early summer when snakes are becoming more active and looking for mates. They are cold-blooded vertebrates whose activity level is strongly controlled by temperature.
There are two main types of venomous snake indigenous to the United States: pit vipers and elapids. Pit vipers include rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths (water moccasins). Pit vipers have glands that are connected to their hollow fangs, which act like hypodermic needles when the snake bites its prey. Their fangs are easily replaced by extra fangs below or behind a damaged or broken-off fang. Their venom damages vascular and red blood cells, causing muscle and tissue death.
Elapids indigenous to the U.S. only include coral snakes. Theirs are the most dangerous bites of the venomous snakes native to the U.S.The coral snake does not have multiple rows of teeth; they are fixed. Their venom is a neurotoxin and affects the nervous system, which can cause paralysis and respiratory arrest, but the onset of symptoms is often delayed many hours.
Avoid creating a welcome environment for snakes by following this simple advice: cut your grass. Keeping it less than four inches high is ideal. This applies to borders, too. Some types of snakes like to hide from the sun, and tall monkey grass is thick and dark and makes the perfect nest for a copperhead (this is where my niece stumbled across her slithery assailant).
Snake bites can be prevented by a little preparation and a lot of common sense. Wear leather boots and long pants in the woods; watch where you are walking and putting your hands when outdoors; give snakes in the open a wide berth and they will return the favor; and don't ever handle a snake for any reason. Even dead snakes can envenomate you.
Pets fall victim to snake bites far more frequently than humans. The ASPCA has a list of safety and prevention tips on their site that will be helpful to keep in mind when enjoying your neighborhood and yard with family pets this summer.
EASY CHART ON IDENTIFICATION OF U.S. SNAKES:
A. Nonvenomous, B. Pitviper, C. Coral Snakes
Head: A. round, B. triangular, C. round
Pupils: A. round B. elliptical, C. round
Facial Pits: A. absent, B. present, C. absent
Fangs: A. none/regular teeth, B. retractable, C. fixed
Subcaudal Scales: A. double row, B. single row, C. double row
Rattles: A. absent, B. in rattlesnakes, C. absent
Color: A. variable, B. variable, C. red/yellow/black